50 of the best Christmas songs to get you in the holiday spirit

Some of us prefer our Christmas music on the pensive side, with wistful lyrics about dusky snowfalls and memories. It’s not joy being sought, but permission to wallow in nostalgia.

Others relish the frisky sounds of sleigh bells and triumphant cascades of horns that embellish so many holiday classics. The season doesn’t go into effect until they’ve literally rocked around the Christmas tree.

There just might be a Christmas song for all tastes – jolly to melancholy – so corralling them into one list is not only futile, but impossible.

Still, we try.

Our ultimate Christmas guide touches on classic and current artists with rock, country, R&B and straight-up pop thrown in. Maybe you’ll find something to add to your holiday cheer … or prompt a tear.

1. 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,' Judy Garland

Songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane have said the first version they wrote for Garland’s film “Meet Me In St. Louis” was so sad, she wouldn’t sing it. Good to know that this is the happy version.

2. 'All I Want for Christmas Is You,' Mariah Carey

Santa Claus and Mariah Carey perform during a pre-tape performance for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center on Nov. 27, 2012.
Santa Claus and Mariah Carey perform during a pre-tape performance for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center on Nov. 27, 2012.

It sounded like a classic upon its arrival, and it’s still the most delightful inductee in the hall of modern Christmas songs.

3. 'Last Christmas,' Wham!

George Michael's yearning lyrics as he laments a fizzled romance might initially seem like a downer. But instead, the combination of a satiny melody and his eventual hopefulness keeps us cheering.

4. 'Tennessee Christmas,' Amy Grant

The lead track from Grant’s 1983 “A Christmas Album” is not only a musical warm embrace but a beautiful ballad steeped in nostalgia.

5. 'Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,' David Bowie and Bing Crosby

Not the most obvious pairing on paper, but the respect between the glam rocker and the standards crooner is palpable and the magic between them is undeniable.

6. 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),' Darlene Love

We still miss the nearly three-decade tradition of Love belting out this classic on David Letterman’s late-night show.

7. 'The Christmas Song,' Nat King Cole

Perhaps the song is a tad overplayed, but the holiday season doesn’t officially arrive until we hear Cole’s pure, dreamy baritone.

8. 'Christmas Wrapping,' The Waitresses

Otherwise best known for their New Wave hit, “I Know What Boys Like,” The Waitresses dropped this dose of awesome storytelling in 1981.

9. 'Do You Hear What I Hear,' Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston performs at the 2004 World Music Awards in Las Vegas.
Whitney Houston performs at the 2004 World Music Awards in Las Vegas.

That soaring voice and that impeccable delivery that always sounded effortless equate to a worthy keepsake of Houston’s potency.

10. 'Wonderful Christmastime,' Paul McCartney

Filled with a sprightly chorus and a typically melodic bass line, this solo hit recorded during McCartney’s sessions for his “McCartney II” album exemplifies his own consistent cheer.

11. 'Celebrate Me Home,' Kenny Loggins

A song for any season, really, with its sentiment of longing to be somewhere familiar.

12. 'Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,' Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

This sinewy rock version was recorded by the band in 1975 at a show in New York and remains a live favorite.

13. 'Grown-Up Christmas List,' Natalie Cole

Written by David Foster and Linda Thompson-Jenner, the sweet ballad is a vital gut check every holiday season.

14. 'Same Old Lang Syne,' Dan Fogelberg

If you don’t melt at Fogelberg’s delicately rendered line, “as I turned to make my way back home, the snow … turned into rain,” then we’re very sorry, you are not in possession of a heart. The Backstreet Boys also offer an impressively thoughtful version of the ballad on their new "A Very Backstreet Christmas" album.

15. 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,' The Jackson 5

The darling vocals of Michael Jackson and his brothers and the unfettered glee in the 1970 arrangement are undiminished.

16. 'Santa Baby,' Eartha Kitt

Considered controversial in 1953. Let that sink in.

17. 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over),' John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band

An anti-war song that is devoid of typical holiday sentimentality, the swooping anthem has nonetheless become an annual necessity.

18. 'Do They Know It’s Christmas,' Band Aid

Oft-maligned now, but there can be no denying the incredible feat Bob Geldof executed to corral some of the U.K.’s finest – from Bono to Bowie, Duran Duran to George Michael – all in the name of charity.

19. 'Step Into Christmas,' Elton John

Unabashedly cheerful and bright, the single found on John's "Diamonds" collection celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

20. 'Gloria (Angels We Have Heard on High),' Michael W. Smith

An underrated maestro whose piano and synthesizer compositions are consistently emotional and triumphant.

21. 'White Christmas,' Bing Crosby

The Irving Berlin standard, written for the 1942 film “Holiday Inn,” won an Academy Award for best original song at the 15th annual ceremony.

22. 'Winter Wonderland,' Jason Mraz

It might not be the most popular version of the jaunty 1934 song (that honor goes to Perry Como and later, Eurythmics). But Mraz’s unique vocal stylings are the most memorable.

23. 'The Twelve Days of Christmas,' John Denver and The Muppets

John Denver and Kermit the Frog laugh during the taping of a Muppet Christmas special in Los Angeles on Nov. 16, 1979.
John Denver and Kermit the Frog laugh during the taping of a Muppet Christmas special in Los Angeles on Nov. 16, 1979.

The endearing folkie’s vocal quirks are appealing enough, but add in the contributions of Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and Kermit and resistance is futile.

24. 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,' Gene Autry

A singalong directed at children, yet who among us hasn’t gotten swept up in that chorus?

25. 'I'll Be Home for Christmas,' Josh Groban

Written as a tribute to soldiers overseas who yearn to be with their families at Christmas, the original by Bing Crosby is the standard-bearer. But Groban admirably communicates the song’s deep poignancy.

26. 'Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,' Brenda Lee

Recorded when Lee was only 13, the 1958 staple is still a regular on the Billboard charts and peaked at No. 2 in 2020.

27. 'Holly Jolly Christmas,' Burl Ives

Beloved for its inclusion in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the Johnny Marks-penned singalong was delivered by Ives, who also voices the film’s narrator.

28. 'We Need a Little Christmas,' Angela Lansbury

Long prior to becoming the “Murder, She Wrote” maven, the late Lansbury flourished as a Broadway star, including playing the title role in 1966’s “Mame,” which spawned this Jerry Herman gem.

29. 'My Favorite Things,' Tony Bennett

The distinctive phrasing that colors every Bennett offering is particularly welcome on a song that is too often reduced to a recitation.

30. 'Christmas All Over Again,' Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Coated with Petty’s inimitable nasal tones, the Phil Spector-ish bop arrived on 1992’s “A Very Special Christmas 2.”

31. 'Someday at Christmas,' Stevie Wonder

The first Christmas album from the R&B/soul icon produced this gem in 1967. Wonder reentered the charts with it in 2015 following a duet update with Andra Day.

32. 'Sleigh Ride,' The Carpenters

Karen and Richard Carpenter’s 1978 “Christmas Portrait” album is a flawless entry in the holiday canon, but their gliding take on the 1948 wintry jaunt is a standout.

33. 'Silver Bells,' Michael Bublé with Naturally 7

A smooth Christmas classic requires an equally glistening vocal delivery and the combination of Bublé and a capella standouts Naturally 7 perfectly collide.

34. 'Merry Xmas Everybody,' Slade

Released at the peak of the British glam rockers’ popularity in 1973, the bouncy guitar rocker showcases the quartet in their shambolic glory.

35. 'Christmas Time Is Here,' Vince Guaraldi Trio

Forever associated with “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the instrumental composition by jazz pianist Guaraldi also produced a lyric version.

36. 'Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays,' NSYNC

Released a little more than a year after their breakthrough debut, the group’s 1998 seasonal collection seized the momentum and spotlighted the charisma of the winsome fivesome.

37. 'Feliz Navidad,' José Feliciano

It’s more than 50 years old, but the straightforward guitar strummer that turned a simple Spanish Christmas greeting into worldwide familiarity still charms.

38. 'Christmas in Sarajevo,' Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Between the screaming guitars and layered synthesizers, it’s pure musical drama – and the swagger never gets tiresome.

39. 'Blue Christmas,' Heart

We know Elvis made it famous. Ann and Nancy Wilson did it better.

40. 'This Christmas,' Donny Hathaway

It barely caused a ripple when released in 1970, but following an Atco Records rerelease in 1991, the song has surged on various Billboard charts and inspired numerous covers.

41. 'Little Saint Nick,' Beach Boys

The Beach Boys brought the holiday cheer for u0022The Beach Boys' Christmas Album.u0022
The Beach Boys brought the holiday cheer for u0022The Beach Boys' Christmas Album.u0022

Melding the group’s trademark harmonies with their affinity for hot rods (or, in this case, Santa and his sleigh), the 1963 original doesn’t allow winter to impede the Boys’ sunny melodies.

42. 'Christmas Time,' Bryan Adams

There’s nothing particularly deep about Adams’ 1985 foot-stomper (“There’s something about Christmas time/ Something about Christmas time” goes the refrain). But enduring popularity led to a video release in 2019.

43. 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,' Annie Lennox

The crystalline voice of the Eurythmics’ veteran is the ideal match for the traditional English carol.

44. 'Like It’s Christmas,' The Jonas Brothers

The sibling trio followed their 2019 resurgence (“Happiness Begins”) with this buoyant bauble.

45. 'Christmas Tree Farm,' Taylor Swift

Who better to sing about the delights of a Christmas tree farm than a woman who actually grew up on one?

46. 'Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You,' Billy Squier

The Boston guitar rocker slapped this on as the B-side to his early '80s hit “My Kinda Lover” and ensured massive video rotation by enlisting MTV’s VJs for the accompanying clip.

47. 'This Gift,' 98 Degrees

Capitalizing on their peak popularity in 1999, the quartet of Nick Lachey, Jeff Timmons, Drew Lachey and Justin Jeffre turned to swoony Christmas tunes for their third album.

48. 'Mele Kalikimaka,' Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters

The song’s title comes from the Hawaiian phrase meaning “Merry Christmas”; this version is one of the earliest recorded, in 1950.

49. 'Run Rudolph Run,' Sheryl Crow

An entry in the 2001 fifth edition of the popular “A Very Special Christmas” compilations (which benefit the Special Olympics), the oft-recorded song popularized by Chuck Berry rollicks under Crow.

50. 'That’s Christmas to Me,' Pentatonix

The title track of the a capella group’s third studio album solidified their standing as a Christmas playlist necessity.

More than one 'Queen of Christmas': Mariah Carey denied exclusive rights to title after trademark battle

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Best Christmas music, including Mariah Carey, Wham! and Michael Bublé